Expert Predictions for the 2017 College Football Season

Bleacher Report College Football StaffFeatured ColumnistAugust 29, 2017

Expert Predictions for the 2017 College Football Season

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    Though B/R's experts agree Florida State will lose to Alabama, it didn't stop someone from picking FSU to win it all.
    Though B/R's experts agree Florida State will lose to Alabama, it didn't stop someone from picking FSU to win it all.John Raoux/Associated Press

    Bleacher Report's college football experts unanimously agree that Alabama will beat Florida State Saturday night. However, as far as predictions for the rest of the 2017 season are concerned, there's little to no consensus on anything.

    There were six people on the panelMatt Hayes, David Kenyon, Adam Kramer, Kerry Miller, Brad Shepard and Greg Wallace—and they combined to make three different picks for best QB, four different picks for both Heisman and national champion and six different picks for first fired head coach.

    In total, the experts peered into a crystal ball to answer 10 questions about the upcoming season, and they look forward to having you throw these predictions in their faces for the next four months. It's a small price to pay to finally have college football back.

Who Wins in Week 1: Alabama or Florida State?

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    The only unanimous answer of this exercise: Alabama will be 1-0.
    The only unanimous answer of this exercise: Alabama will be 1-0.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Matt Hayes — Follow @MattHayesCFB

    I've heard all offseason about how Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois will make a significant jump, and how there's no drop-off with the new skill players around him. Fine. Here's the biggest issue of all: Can the Seminoles protect Francois? No one was beaten up quite like Francois last season, and if the 'Noles haven't improved in pass protection, they're not beating Alabama.

                     

    David Kenyon — Follow @Kenyon19_BR

    Alabama will leave Atlanta with a win because FSU's offensive line won't be able to handle the Crimson Tide front seven. However, it'll be a close finish thanks to the Seminoles defense.

                     

    Adam Kramer — Follow @KegsnEggs

    Give me Alabama, but I don't believe it will be a blowout of epic proportions. Florida State is a mighty fine football team and incredibly talented. But I do think we'll see a much improved, more comfortable version of Jalen Hurts and that Nick Saban will create enough pressure to make the Florida State offense uncomfortable enough. (Goodness, I cannot wait for this game.)

                     

    Kerry Miller — Follow @kerrancejames

    Even though Alabama was the team that lost 10 players to the NFL draft, it feels like Florida State is the one that needs some time to find its footing. Of particular concern: Are the 'Noles ready to go to war against Alabama's defense with Jacques Patrick and Cam Akers at running back? If they meet again in January, I'll probably pick FSU. On the first Saturday in September, though, I expect the Crimson Tide to roll.

                     

    Brad Shepard — Follow @Brad_Shepard

    Alabama wins. They're just too disciplined, too talented and too well-coached to lose out of the gate. The Seminoles may be the better team by the end of the year, but not Week 1. It all hinges on Deondre Francois' ability to throw the ball consistently against the Tide. If he can, this may be interesting.

                      

    Greg Wallace — Follow @gc_wallace

    Alabama will win. Nick Saban has some question marks on both sides, but it's hard to pick against the Crimson Tide's overall depth and talent, which find a way to answer the bell every season.

Which Preseason AP Top 25 Team Flops the Hardest?

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    We all love Lamar Jackson, but several of us have serious doubts about Louisville as a whole.
    We all love Lamar Jackson, but several of us have serious doubts about Louisville as a whole.John Raoux/Associated Press

    Matt Hayes

    Tennessee. A lot of inexperience and uncertainty at the most important position on the field (quarterback)and that’s only the beginning for a team that is in reload (or rebuild) mode. We'll know a lot more about the Vols after Week 1. Georgia Tech's flexbone offense has humiliated teams that aren't ready for it. A loss there, and an inexperienced team is already chasing.  

                     

    David Kenyon

    Florida comes to mind, but I don't view the Gators as a College Football Playoff contender. Using that angle, I'll take Penn State. Nine wins usually can't be called a bad season, especially when the program just reached 10 wins for the first time in seven years. But after all of the offseason attention and CFP hype, a 9-3 projection is far against the grain.

                   

    Adam Kramer

    Lamar Jackson might be, rep for rep, the most enjoyable player to watch in all of college football, but I think Louisville could struggle some. For one, the team lost a slew of good players and targets for Jackson. And two, more significantly, theirs is one of the trickier schedules in the country. But Jackson might be good enough to conquer everything in his path.

                   

    Kerry Miller

    Jim Harbaugh is a stellar coach. It's no coincidence that two of Michigan's best seasons in recent memory have come in the past two years since his arrival in the Big House. However, it blows my mind that more than 40 percent of AP voters gave a top-10 vote to a team that lost 17 starters. Factor in a schedule that includes three games away from home against top-20 teams and a home game against Ohio State and it's not hard to see Michigan floundering its way to a seven-win year.

                  

    Brad Shepard

    It's a tough pick between Louisville and Michigan, but I'm going with the Cardinals. Sure, they have Lamar Jackson (and he's a whole lot), but they don't look like they have that much more on paper. Michigan will improve as the season progresses and be good by the end of the year. I think teams found out late last year how to defend Jackson, and this could be a long season for Bobby Petrino and Co.

                   

    Greg Wallace

    Florida has won SEC East titles in each of Jim McElwain’s first two seasons, but has an unsettled situation at quarterback and returns only three defensive starters following the departuresof corners Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson to the NFL. The Gators open with Michigan and get LSU, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Florida State at home, but there is strong potential for regression in an improving SEC East. After all, McElwain is just 3-7 against ranked teams.

Which Unranked Team Will Be a Surprise Success?

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    Could the Wolfpack be this year's surprise team?
    Could the Wolfpack be this year's surprise team?Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    Matt Hayes

    Mississippi State. The Bulldogs will be much better defensively, with a handful of young guys (hello, Jeffery Simmons) growing into significant roles. And then there's Nick Fitzgerald, the game's best dual-threat QB this side of Lamar Jackson. They've worked all offseason on Fitzgerald becoming more of a thrower. Time to see if Dan Mullen's latest project takes the next step.

                   

    David Kenyon

    Led by a terrific defense, North Carolina State. Granted, that doesn't mean a conference championship, since the Wolfpack are in the ACC Atlantic Division with Clemson, Florida State and Louisville. However, N.C. State is going to spring at least one major upset that shakes up the rankings and the ACC race. The Wolfpack's quality will be better than their record.

                    

    Adam Kramer

    Selecting Notre Dame for this category feels odd, but that's precisely what I am going to do. I just feel like balance will be restored and the team will rally. Also, look out for Brandon Wimbush. He's going to be a thing soon.

                      

    Kerry Miller

    I've got one Big Ten team as my biggest flop and another one as my surprise story. The Iowa Hawkeyes are going to be a problem. Their stable of veterans at running back, offensive line and linebacker could result in a team that leads the nation in rushing margin. If they're able to quickly figure out their QB situation sans C.J. Beathard, look out.

                      

    Brad Shepard

    I like the upside of North Carolina State this year, believe it or not. I think it's a do-or-die year for head coach Dave Doeren, and things are set up nicely for him. I'm a big fan of quarterback Ryan Finley and do-it-all offensive star Jaylen Samuels, and this is going to be one of the nation's top defenses. This could wind up being a nine- or 10-win season. Just think: They were 7-6 last year, and four of their six losses were by seven points or fewer.

                  

    Greg Wallace

    It’s never smart to count out Gary Patterson, and people could be sleeping on TCU a little bit. The Horned Frogs went 6-7 last fall but return 16 starters, including senior quarterback Kenny Hill, who has one last chance to fulfill his potential. He and TCU’s receivers need to be more consistent, but a defense that returns nine starters (including senior linebacker Travin Howard, coming off a 130-tackle season) should keep the Frogs competitive and a factor in the Big 12 race.

Which True Freshman Will Make the Biggest National Impact?

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    Cam Akers is going to hit the ground running.
    Cam Akers is going to hit the ground running.Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

    Matt Hayes

    RB Stephen Carr, USC. The Trojans are loaded on offense, and Carr doesn't have to carry the load early. But watch how quickly coach Clay Helton gets him involved in the offense. By midseason, he'll be a focal point of the unit. He's that goodspeed, strength, make-you-miss ability. One USC staffer compared him to Ezekiel Elliott. That's good enough for me. 

                 

    David Kenyon

    With a nod to Michigan receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, I'll take Alabama's Jerry Jeudy because (spoiler!) I expect the Tide to make the College Football Playoff. Calvin Ridley and Robert Foster will be the leading targets, but Jeudy is already the No. 4 option at receiver. It won't be long in 2017 until he's a starter.

                 

    Adam Kramer

    Cam Akers is going to be great for Florida State, and it's not going to take long. The word out of Tallahassee is that its next great running back has arrived, and it wouldn't shock me to even see Akers make a Heisman run as a true freshman.

                     

    Kerry Miller

    Though I was just doubting Michigan two seconds ago, I'm going to hedge that bet by saying Donovan Peoples-Jones makes the biggest splash as a true freshman. If nothing else, the young wide receiver is in the right place to become an instant star. The only returning Wolverine who made more than 13 catches last season was fullback Khalid Hill—and even he only had 16 receptions.

                 

    Brad Shepard

    This one's easy: It's going to be Florida State running back Cam Akers. He's an incredible talent who will show everybody he's a tough, gritty runner in a hard-fought loss against Alabama. After that, he'll find his footing as the schedule becomes a bit more forgiving. Akers will run for more than 1,000 yards and make the transition from Dalvin Cook easier.

                   

    Greg Wallace

    Cam Akers is transitioning from quarterback to running back, but has a ready-made role at Florida State with the departure of Dalvin Cook. Expect him to make a lot of noise for a good Seminole team.

Who Is the Best Quarterback in the Country?

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    The Rose Bowl was just the beginning of Sam Darnold's CFB legacy.
    The Rose Bowl was just the beginning of Sam Darnold's CFB legacy.Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    Matt Hayes

    Best numbers? Sam Darnold. Best thrower? Josh Allen. But if we're talking best all-around QB, I'm sticking with Lamar Jackson. Louisville was beaten up late last season, and Jackson's numbers over the final three games showed it. He's just as dangerous and dynamic—and he has been working with Bobby Petrino (a guy who knows a little something about the passing game) this offseason to increase his throwing efficiency.  

                  

    David Kenyon

    Baker Mayfield. The two-time Heisman Trophy finalist will be the undisputed star of Oklahoma's show this season, since Samaje Perine, Joe Mixon and Dede Westbrook all headed to the NFL. The departures hurt, but Mayfield will throw behind an experienced offensive line. Give him time, and he'll make defenses pay.

                  

    Adam Kramer

    Oh, this is tough. What a year it is for the position, and I suppose it depends on how you evaluate. But in terms of impact, I will go with USC's Sam Darnold. I know it’s obvious and the vanilla ice cream answer, but after spending time with him this offseason and seeing the potential for growth, I just feel like he has both the ability and mindset to do some special things.

                   

    Kerry Miller

    For the third straight year, it will be Baker Mayfield. Whether Oklahoma's defense does enough for Mayfield's heroics to matter is another story, but this man has rewritten the book on passing efficiency in his two seasons with the Sooners. His numbers will almost certainly decrease a bit, but they might be even more impressive, given all the key teammates he lost.

                      

    Brad Shepard

    The most talented quarterback in the country is Wyoming's Josh Allen, and the one who'll put up the best numbers is Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph. But Sam Darnold is the best all-around quarterback, and he'll lead the Trojans to the College Football Playoff after an epic battle with Washington's Jake Browning. I can't wait until that championship game.

                     

    Greg Wallace

    Sam Darnold. USC's season pivoted upward when he got the job last fall, and I expect him to be even better in his second season as a starter, even with a group of new receivers surrounding him. He's a strong Heisman Trophy candidate.

Which Will Be the Best Conference in College Football?

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    5 of 6 experts agree that the SEC will be back with a vengeance.
    5 of 6 experts agree that the SEC will be back with a vengeance.Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Matt Hayes

    It's a broken record, and an oldie but a goodie: the SEC. Georgia will be better. So will LSU, Florida, Auburn and Mississippi Stateall based on better quarterback play. Even South Carolina will be in the SEC East Division race in November behind a terrific talent in QB Jake Bentley. This is the year the Death Star that is the SEC strikes back.

                   

    David Kenyon

    The SEC, but not by much. While Alabama is still king, the depth of the conference is steadily improving. The West Division has three Playoff contenders, three bowl-caliber teams and a potentially pesky Ole Miss squad. Although the East will be a jumbled mess behind Florida and Georgia, every team has a reasonable case for bowl eligibility.

                       

    Adam Kramer

    NOT YOURS. (I'm sorry, but no question enrages the masses quite like this one and that response just flows at this point.) I believe the SEC makes a comeback—if you want to call it that—and shows that it is much more than Alabama and a bunch of also-rans this year. The bottom of the conference has gotten better, which is where the separation exists.

                       

    Kerry Miller

    Southeastern Conference. Between Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Georgia, the SEC has four solid contenders for a national championship—and don't sleep on Florida and Tennessee as candidates to make some noise. However, the best division will be the ACC Atlantic, where Clemson, Florida State, Louisville and N.C. State will all be players on the national stage.

                    

    Brad Shepard

    The Big Ten. The Southeastern Conference is going to look much better than it did last season, and the ACC has talent galore on defense. But the Big Ten boasts two bonafide national championship contenders in Ohio State and Penn State. Michigan will take a dip, but it will be strong by the end of the year. Wisconsin is always tough, and there is terrific coaching throughout. I love the upside of that league this year.

                       

    Greg Wallace

    The SEC. I don't think it will just be Alabama and 13 others this fall. With Auburn, LSU and potentially Georgia stronger and better overall depth, the SEC will find its way to the top of the national hierarchy in 2017.

Who Will Be the First Head Coach Fired?

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    Kevin Sumlin enters the season firmly entrenched on the hot seat.
    Kevin Sumlin enters the season firmly entrenched on the hot seat.Sam Craft/Associated Press

    Matt Hayes

    It’s not who you think. Brian Kelly, Kevin Sumlin and Jim Mora all have the potential for bounce-back seasons to save their jobs. Let's go with Gary Andersen at Oregon State. After that opening weekend implosion against Colorado State (the Rams are good but not THAT good), the season suddenly looks shaky at best. Before the calendar hits November, the Beavers play at Washington State and USC, and they host Washington, Colorado, Stanford and Minnesota. Oregon State is 3-16 in the Pac-12 in two-plus years under Andersen, and 6-19 overall since 2015.

                        

    David Kenyon

    Mark Whipple. Over the last six seasons, UMass hasn't finished better than 3-9. The Minutemen opened 2017 by falling at home to Hawaii and have several likely losses on the horizon. According to his contract, it'll cost the school $500,000 to fire Whipple before mid-January 2018. But it'll be time for a fresh perspective.

                      

    Adam Kramer

    Kevin Sumlin. When your boss goes on television and says you're a week-to-week investment, that's not great. Neither is losing a whole bunch of talent, including the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. Oh, and Texas A&M has the money to pay the buyout and a slew of helpful donors anxious to cut that check.

                        

    Kerry Miller

    This will be determined on Sunday night when Texas A&M plays UCLA. Both Kevin Sumlin and Jim Mora enter the season with seats hotter than the sun and with schedules that feature multiple major challenges before the end of October. If the Aggies lose to the Bruins and proceed to lose to Alabama and Florida in early October, they'll use their subsequent bye week to break in an interim coach.

                      

    Brad Shepard

    Rich Rodriguez at Arizona. Listen: Jim Mora Jr. will buy himself some goodwill by having Josh Rosen back, even though a ridiculous schedule may wind up doing him in in the end. But there's little to look forward to in Tucson, and the Wildcats are going to be bad this year. He may not make it through the regular season.

                      

    Greg Wallace

    Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury. Tech has a rough September with a tough FCS foe to start and games against Arizona State, Houston and Oklahoma State. If the Red Raiders start slowly, it could be curtains for the beloved alum in Lubbock.

Who Wins the Heisman?

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    Best QB means Darnold is also the favorite for the Heisman.
    Best QB means Darnold is also the favorite for the Heisman.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Matt Hayes

    Sam Darnold, USC. I'm going with the guy in the biggest media market, with the best chance to put up big numbers in big games (Stanford, Texas, Notre Dame, UCLA) and whose team will be fighting for a College Football Playoff spot in late November. It's a tried-and-true formula, everyone.

                      

    David Kenyon

    Mayfield brings home the hardware following his third trip to New York. Oklahoma will lean on him heavily this season, and the result will be even more impressive numbers than in previous years. That elevated production combined with a third straight Big 12 crown will earn Mayfield the Heisman.

                        

    Adam Kramer

    Sam Darnold. I already declared him best quarterback in the country, and often times, that person wins this award. He also plays for a program that will be featured plenty and win many games, both of which factor a great deal in this discussion.

                      

    Kerry Miller

    It's a bit of a long shot, but I like Washington's Jake Browning here. He finished sixth in last year's vote, and it wasn't until midway through his 47-touchdown campaign that people started paying attention. By then, Lamar Jackson had effectively already won the award. This year, though, we're ready to watch Browning shred his way through another weak schedule.

                   

    Brad Shepard

    Penn State running back Saquon Barkley. I wouldn't be surprised if Darnold wins it, but there will be some offensive growing pains without any defined elite pass-catchers early in the season; those guys will develop. I love Derrius Guice, but he doesn't have enough of a passing game around him. Barkley is the centerpiece of a high-flying, well-rounded attack. He's the man this year.

                        

    Greg Wallace

    Thirteen years have passed since Southern California has (officially) had a Heisman Trophy winner, but Sam Darnold looks poised to end that drought. A talented, poised pocket passer, Darnold turned around the Trojans’ season when he took the starting role last season. He threw 31 touchdowns in just 10 starts in 2016, and should be even better this fall. He’ll lead the Trojans to great things and become the latest sophomore quarterback to win the Heisman.

Who Will Be the 4 Playoff Teams?

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    All 6 experts have Alabama, USC and Ohio State reaching the College Football Playoff.
    All 6 experts have Alabama, USC and Ohio State reaching the College Football Playoff.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Matt Hayes

    Ohio State, Alabama, USC, FSU. Alabama beats FSU in Week 1, but the 'Noles do enough over the next three months to win their way back into the top four. The biggest wildcard: Auburn. If Jarrett Stidham plays as well as Gus Malzahn believes he will (where have we heard this before, Jeremy Johnson?), the Tigers could win the SEC and one-loss Alabama (to Auburn) might just edge out ACC champion FSU. 

                 

    David Kenyon

    Alabama, Ohio State, USC and Oklahoma. I'm most hesitant with USC due to some lingering questions outside of Sam Darnold and Washington's favorable schedule, but Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma should each finish 11-1 or 12-0. They all boast an experienced quarterback and, relative to their conference, an excellent defense.

                     

    Adam Kramer

    I'll take Alabama, USC, Ohio State and Clemson. I've felt pretty strongly about the first three for much of the offseason—well, as strongly as one can feel for a prediction that will go up in flames. Clemson, however, came on late. The more I see, read and process, the more I like.

                    

    Kerry Miller

    Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State and USC. I know, I know. I'm going out on a limb here. But there's a reason these are the four teams that received first-place votes in the preseason AP poll. (And this makes up for my long-shot Heisman pick.) One team I could see crashing the party is Oklahoma State, but the three-week stretch of at Texas, at West Virginia and versus Oklahoma will likely be the end of the Cowboys.

                      

    Brad Shepard

    It's going to be Alabama, Oklahoma, Ohio State and USC. I think in the Pac-12, the winner of the Washington-USC conference championship game is in, and Stanford is a sleeper there, for sure. But those two teams are the best. Ohio State will outlast Penn State to get where it needs to be, and nobody is beating Alabama in the SEC. Oklahoma is going to surprise some folks even without Dede Westbrook, Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon.

                        

    Greg Wallace

    The fourth College Football Playoff team will be full of brand names. No interlopers here, no surprises. Alabama will lead the way, followed by Ohio State, Florida State and Southern California. ESPN will love this field, and so should college football fans—it’ll have plenty of star power and intrigue.

Who Will Win the National Championship?

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    Could that Week 1 gem be a preview of the national championship?
    Could that Week 1 gem be a preview of the national championship?Uncredited/Associated Press

    Matt Hayes

    Ohio State. Go ahead and fill my inbox and tell me I'm an idiot after Indiana shocks the world Thursday night.

                 

    David Kenyon

    Alabama will overcome its loss to Clemson last season and get revenge on Ohio State for 2014. Jalen Hurts will avoid a sophomore slump, and his development as a passer will be the difference in the national championship.

                  

    Adam Kramer

    Well, what can possibly wrong here? I'll take USC. Sure, let's just continue the Sam Darnold theme. But it's not just him. It's Ronald Jones, who will be a star at running back. It's Cam Smith, who is poised for an enormous season at linebacker. It's Iman Marshall, who will grow into one of the best cornerbacks in the country. I just love the front-line talent of this team, and I believe they'll be able to handle a conference that is still under construction.

                

    Kerry Miller

    I hope you're ready for some #TalkinBoutTheNoles, because Florida State is winning the CFP. Losing Dalvin Cook hurts, but the return of Derwin James along with improved pass protection from the offensive line should more than make up for it. With an elite defensive line and secondary, FSU will rank top five in the nation in points allowed per game while Deondre Francois paces the offense to a 14-game winning streak after the Week 1 loss—shades of what Ohio State did in 2014 after an early loss to Virginia Tech.

                

    Brad Shepard

    Urban Meyer had that look in his eye a season ago after getting demoralized by Clemson in the College Football Playoff Semifinals, and he went out and made a dynamic offensive coordinator hire in Kevin Wilson to rectify things. Look for J.T. Barrett to make a huge turnaround, and there's so much talent in the Buckeyes' defensive front seven that they'll be able to weather getting young guys ready in the secondary early in the year. By the end of the season, they'll be the best in the country.

                    

    Greg Wallace

    Last January, Alabama came one second from winning consecutive national titles before being thwarted by Clemson and Hunter Renfrow. As always, the Crimson Tide have NFL-created holes to fill, but Nick Saban has a deep, talented roster that will finish the job this time around. Sam Darnold and Southern California go home disappointed, and the Tide rolls to Saban’s fifth title in Tuscaloosa.